NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. -- The similarities are almost eerie.
Both men live in Isleworth, the exclusive gated-community in an Orlando suburb that is home to many professional golfers. Both have had to deal with serious questions about their roles in mysterious car crashes in recent years. Both have had significant injuries that forced them to take time off last year, and of course, both play on the PGA Tour.
|Arjun Atwal follows an opening 66 with a 72 and is five shots back. (AP)|
Despite his recent off-course travails, Woods remains the long-time No. 1-ranked player in the world. Atwal now checks in at No. 463. Woods is golf's all-time leading money winner. Atwal must earn about $280,000 in his next two events, this week at the AT&T National and in three weeks at the Canadian Open, or lose his playing status on the big tour.
Woods, now 34, has 71 tour titles, with 14 major championships. Though he has won 10 times worldwide, 37-year-old Atwal's best finish in the U.S. is a tie for second at the 2005 BellSouth Classic, with no major wins.
And this week at the AT&T National, Woods so-called signature event, here's the biggest difference of all.
After 36 holes, Tiger Woods, still fuming Friday about a balky putter, was fortunate to still be playing over the holiday weekend after mediocre rounds of 73 and 70, 3-over-par 143, smack on the cut line for top 70 and ties.
"I hit it awesome, putt awful," Woods grumped. "I putt great, hit it awful. It's always something."
Meanwhile, Atwal, the pride of Calcutta, found himself leading the tournament after the first round, and was in second place with three holes left in the second before bogeys at two of his last three holes dropped him to 2-under 138, only 5 behind the leader, Englishman Justin Rose, who shot at splendid 64.
It was not supposed to be this way, at least not this week. The juggernaut draped in swoosh, who's charitable foundation reaps most of the profits from his signature event, won his own tournament a year ago when it was played at Congressional in the Washington suburbs.
Thousands have poured onto the course to watch Woods in his first appearance in this area, with most expecting to see bunches of birdies, not botched 2½-foot putts for par, as they witnessed Friday at his 17th hole (No. 8), his second miss of the day inside 3 feet.
Atwal's gallery is, to put it kindly, rather sparse, definitely befitting a player fortunate just to be in the field, let alone playing golf for a living considering his past penchant for driving (a car) too fast. More on that soon.
He is playing the 2010 season on a limited medical extension, good for entry into a maximum of eight events at the discretion of tournament directors around the tour. In order to play more, he needs a couple of big paydays to secure his privileges for the rest of the year.
Initially, Atwal was not scheduled to be in the AT&T field this week. He did qualify to play in the U.S. Open two weeks ago, missing the cut with back-to-back 75s. During a Pebble Beach Monday practice round with Woods, his friend and Isleworth neighbor, the subject of their schedules came up as they walked around the course.
"I said 'I'm playing Hartford and then I'm going to play the John Deere and skip [Woods event in Philadelphia]," Atwal said. "He was like 'why aren't you playing mine?' So I'm like 'I'm not in, it's as simple as that.' He said 'have you written for an invite?' I said 'no, I'll play whenever I get in. I'm in no rush.'"
At the time they spoke, the Philadelphia tournament had already given out its eight sponsor's exemptions, but Woods told him if anyone dropped out, he'd make sure he got into the field. In the end, there was one opening, and Atwal got it.
If he somehow manages to win the tournament Sunday, it would make one of the more intriguing golf comeback stories in recent memory, which brings us to that car wreck.
In March 2007, Atwal had just finished a practice round with Woods at Isleworth when he got into his high performance BMW, equipped with a 500-horsepower engine, and headed down the road. John N. Park, the 48-year-old owner of a hard-charging 2006 Mercedes, with 469 HP under the hood, was soon seen side by side with Atwal's car, and witnesses were quoted at the time as saying both men were going far over the speed limit, perhaps 100 mph in a 45 mph zone.
At some point, Park lost control of his car, flipped several times and hit a tree. He did not survive. At the time, according to police records, Atwal admitted he had been going 80 but denied that he was street racing with Park. After a year-long investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol, no criminal charges were filed, mainly because there was no evidence that Atwal had forced the other driver off the road.
Atwal found out he was in the clear in terms of possibly going to jail on a Monday. The following Sunday, he was hoisting the championship trophy at the Malaysian Open on the European Tour. He played the 2008 season on the Nationwide Tour, earned his regular tour card for 2009 but was forced to miss four months last season with a shoulder injury incurred while weightlifting.
"The physical injury [his shoulder], I sat home with my kids and I was fine," Atwal said this week. "Mentally, I wasn't concerned about it. But [the legal case involving the accident] was something else."
He is playing these days with a fairly uncluttered mind, save for the pressure of trying to stay on the PGA Tour for the rest of the year, and the future as well.
By the way, despite some of those eerie similarities to their lives, Atwal insisted the other day that he tries not to compare his game to Woods' when the two practice together back home.
"It's strange because we practice and play every day, so I've stopped doing that," he said. "Initially when I used to practice and play with him, I used to compare myself, but now it's just whatever."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@aol.com.